The notion of cooking with bananas might seem strange to anyone who grew up eating them as a sweet fruit, but cooking bananas -- plantains -- are a longtime staple in Latin America, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. Plantains and ordinary bananas belong to the same family, but plantains have been selectively bred for generations to produce large, starchy, long-lasting fruit. If you're new to cooking with plantains, there are numerous traditional recipes to choose from.
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Three Ingredients in One
Overall, it's useful to think of plantains in terms of winter squash -- another sweet, starchy fruit that's used as a vegetable -- as a sort of mental yardstick. The primary difference is that like their sweet cousins, and unlike squash, plantains change dramatically over the course of a few days. They're at their firmest and starchiest when green, gradually softening and sweetening as they pass through their yellow stage and become black. This increases their versatility, making each plantain essentially three ingredients in one. If you find you favor one stage over the others, you can peel and freeze the fruit at that point to preserve them for later use.
Cooks accustomed to ordinary bananas might discard blackened, overripe plantains, but that would be a mistake. Even when the fruit's exterior begins to turn mushy, it's still perfectly good and has simply passed to its next stage of culinary value. One of the most cherished plantain dishes, plantanas maduros, requires exactly these well-ripened fruit. Slice and saute the plantain until it caramelizes deeply at the edges, gaining a rich flavor in the process, then serve it with roast chicken, black bean soup or other savory dishes. You can also mound super-ripe plantains with a pat of butter and a drizzle of maple syrup to make a fine -- if non-traditional -- alternative to pancakes. The ripe fruit can also be used for desserts, either baked with traditional flavors such as rum and coconut or substituted for overripe bananas in loaves and muffins.
At their ripe yellow stage, the resemblance between plantains and squash -- or sweet potatoes, for that matter -- is closest. Like their golden counterparts, the plantains bring a distinctively sweet flavor to savory dishes. They're frequently boiled or roasted and then mashed, at this stage, and can be eaten as-is or transformed into African-style dumplings. The cooked fruit complements rice and beans beautifully, and provides a fine canvas for bold flavors such as lime juice, onions, garlic, cumin and chili peppers. They're also tasty when split down the middle, canoe-style, and baked with a stuffing built around cheese, ham, bacon or pulled pork.
At their greenest, plantains combine the hard, dense texture of a winter squash with the pleasantly starchy blandness of a potato. They can be cut into discs or cubes for pan-frying, baked whole or sliced, deep-fried, or simply added to soups and stews like any other vegetable. Traditionally they're used in a number of hash-like meat dishes at this stage; or fried until soft, then "smashed" and refried to make crisp-edged tostones. Green plantains can also be sliced thinly into rounds and then deep-fried or baked to make plantain chips, a pleasantly crunchy snack.